SciTech

Meteor season begins early Wednesday with Perseid show

Tuesday night is the start of the 2015-16 meteor shower season. It just happens that most of the good showers fall in the same few months as football season. This week, we start with the Panthers at Buffalo and the Perseids at Earth.

The timing of this year’s Perseid meteor shower is nearly ideal, with the moon being near “new” phase – aligned with the sun and leaving us a dark night sky. The rate of meteors per hour peaks about 2 a.m. Wednesday. Yeah, a weekday night is not so good for late-night observing: You’ll have to get to work late the next day, but you already do that after the Super Bowl, right?

Meteors are garden pea-size rocks that run into our atmosphere and burn up due to frictional heating. The Perseids come in at about 130,000 miles per hour. That’s more than 2,000 times the speed of Cam Newton’s pass of 56 mph in the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine testing of college players.

While you can see a handful of “shooting stars” per hour on any night, meteor showers provide a sort of celestial fireworks show. We can expect to see up to 90 Perseids per hour, at least if you are in a dark location, free of light pollution. The rate is about half that the night before and the night after the peak.

Meteor showers occur when Earth, in its motion around the sun, crosses the orbit of a broken-up comet. That debris enters our atmosphere and burns up high in the atmosphere

Because the encounter happens at a particular place in our orbit, the date of a given shower is always about the same each year. Also, the geometry of those intersecting orbits puts the meteors coming from the same direction in space. We name the shower for the constellation from which the shooting stars seem to radiate – in this case Perseus. You will find Perseus rising in the northeast during the evening, reaching half-way up to the zenith by the 2 a.m. peak.

All you need to enjoy the event is a dark location and maybe a lounge chair. Each meteor streak lasts a second or two, not enough time to point even a pair of binoculars, much less a telescope.

The brighter moon will interfere with October’s Orionids and November’s Leonids but not December’s Geminids. As the football season winds down in early January, the Panthers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as Earth receives the Quadrantid meteors. That will end the meteor shower season.

Let’s hope it isn’t also the end of the Panthers’ season. Maybe we will have a sleepy post-Super Bowl morning, too!

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State. Email: catondb@appstate.edu. More on this column is at: www.upintheair.info.

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